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The limits of positive psychology? Stopping the past leak into your heart.

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Can we really be positive in bad situations?

I have never been totally happy, no pun intended, with positive psychology’s approach to objectively bad situations.  I am totally persuaded by our ability to make the best of good situation.  I am persuaded by our contribution to sort-of-bad situations.  I am persuaded that in a terminal situation, we may as well be happy.  I can also  point you towards little experiments that cost you nothing but your time and that you can try on your own.

Where positive psychology might have little to offer

But there are three situations where I am not persuaded positive psychology can help us much, though in truth, nothing much helps in these situations.

First, when you are in a bad situation alone, and I mean socially alone.  I haven’t looked closely at being physically alone.

Second, when other people will harm you, unless you harm them first.

Third, when you have experienced sustained social abuse and your fight/flight mechanism is on a hair trigger.

Thinking about tragedy with movies

I watched a Scottish movie over the weekend, 16 Years of Alcohol, that illustrated a combination of these three situations.  The protagonist grew up with an alcoholic father and joined a gang.  While he was generally terrorizing the neighborhood, he met a girl and was motivated to change his life.  The story is about his intelligent and thoughtful attempts and ultimately his death on the streets.

We can compare this story to Goodbye Mr Chips, which I watched last weekend, and the well known movie about hope, Shawshank Redemption.  In Shawshank, we have a protagonist who out-thinks and outwits people and is able to leave the situation by tunneling out of the jail.  In Goodbye Mr Chips, the protagonist has a mentor who is slightly above the situation and he is able to grow himself and ultimately change the environment around him.   Put this starkly, I think you already see the shape of my point.

In 16 Years of Alcohol, the agent of change, a young woman, was a resource but not sufficient to change the situation for the protagonist.  And  importantly, he did not exit the situation.  I’m afraid he should have left town!

Where is hope in a hopeless place?

The protagonist asks himself at one point: where is hope in a hopeless place?  There was an excellent line though where the young lady suggests to the protagonist that the past does not come looking for him – that he went looking for the past.  And he talks about stopping the past leaking into your heart.  These are good points – with slightly more resources and slightly less stress, he might have made it.

Extreme hardship and an abiding memory of struggle and courage

This is a realistic account of dealing with extreme hardship.  If you are interested in using positive psychology to move on from bad places, you should have a look.  Though a tragedy and not a feel good movie, you are left with an abiding memory of struggle and courage.  It is a respectful account of people brought up in the hardest places in our society.



  1. Kathryn Kathryn

    A couple of things come to mind with respect to your example and relevance of positive psychology.

    1) Mike Frisch has a model that he calls CASIO for figuring out what to do to become happier about a particular situation. The C stands for change your circumstances. I think you are right that the protagonist should have gotten away — although I know that is easier said than done. Sometimes there is little that can be fixed in a bad situation.

    For more about CASIO, check out this article in Positive Psych News Daily: Beyond Reframing: Other Avenues to Satisfaction —

    2) Dr. Isaac Prilleltensky argues that social programs need to move away from dealing with the weaknesses of individuals and towards the strengths of communities. He’s had some success with this. Check out his book, Promoting Well-being: Linking Personal, Organizational, and Community Change By Isaac Prilleltensky, Ora Prilleltensky, Inc NetLibrary. I’ve seen other cases where people have come together to make real differences in neighborhoods that seemed pretty hopeless at first.

    Positive psychology for individuals doesn’t have the whole answer — it needs to be put together with effective social action for communities.


  2. scotchcart scotchcart

    Thanks, Kathryn. I had forgotten that I had written this.

    And thanks for the references. Oh, I agree entirely. As a psychologist who has worked with HR managers (and others), people take salaries for designing and managing our environments. I think, not to put too finer a point on it, they should often give the money back!!

    Of course in practice, the critical factor is “collective efficacy”. If we don’t believe in each other, we won’t hold our managers and politicians to account.

    What is hope in a hopleless place? I will follow up the reference.

    PS You do know that there is a big positive psychology movement in Scotland – the location of the movie?

  3. Teresa Teresa

    I just found your writings/blogs, whatever you’d like to call them! They’re really interesting, especially those that are particularly relevant to positive psychology–I’ve been attempting to finish a paper for a class on the “good life” in which I’m trying to integrate positive psychology’s conceptions of the “good life” into the context of Joseph Campbell’s mythology-based theoretical framework. Well, something like that. To be honest, I found your writings while researching my paper topic on the web and haven’t gotten any more of my paper done tonight!


    You’re probably wondering what the point of my comment is. I’m very interested in many, many of the topics you write of. Mainly, I’m interested in them because of how effectively you are able to integrate so many different concepts together in each article. Also, I’m particularly interested, as was stated above, in positive psychology, mythology, self and collective-efficacy, and the article on which I’m commenting.

    You asked a very interesting question in your article above: “Where is hope in a hopeless place?”

    And, it’s pretty random and odd that I was just asking myself the very same question about positive psychology’s limitations prior to venturing onto your website–today I asked it in fact.


    Actually, I had included the question into my essay I’m writing about the “good life” and Campbell. And, I found a great excerpt from Victor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” that is very relevant to the question which you and I asked about finding hope in a hopeless place.

    Here it is:

    A Consideration of positive psychology’s conceptions of the good life: Do they fit into the framework Campbell presents in the “Power of Myth?”

    The Role of Spiritual and Religious Factors:

    I think that, to fully understand the significance of spiritual and religious factors on living the good life, we must examine the following excerpt from “Man’s Search for Meaning.” In it Frankl was speaking to a group of prisoners in a Nazi concentration camp, a group of individuals that found themselves stripped of nearly all that positive psychology believes to be necessary for living the good life: freedom of choice, pleasure maximization, positive emotions, family, traditions, callings, money, and more. Frankl says: “and finally I spoke of our sacrifice, which had meaning in every case. Those of us who had any religious faith, I said frankly, could understand without difficulty. I told them of a comrade who on his arrival at camp had tried to make a pact with Heaven that his suffering and death should save the human being he loved from a painful end. For this man, suffering and death were meaningful; his was a sacrifice of the deepest significance. He did not want to die for nothing. None of us wanted that” (83).

    Frankl followed that by stating that “the purpose of my words was to find a full meaning in our life, then and there, in that hut and in that practically hopeless situation…When the electric light bulb flared up again, I saw the miserable figures of my friends limping toward me to thank me with tears in their eyes” (83-84).

    Clearly, then, even when people are stripped of all the things thought to be associated with living the good life, they are still capable of finding meaning in a hopeless situation. How is this possible? Perhaps, it is possible to find hope by tapping into our uniquely human capacity for spirituality.

    Anyways, I just thought that section of the book “Man’s Search for Meaning” may interest you. It is an incredible work, although, after reading your writings, I’m convinced that you’ve probably already read it thoroughly. If you haven’t read it, then do so! You won’t regret it.


    Where do you teach? What kind of program do you teach for? I’m not asking this to be nosy, but because I’m in the process of applying to doctoral programs for the Fall of ’09 entering class. I’m in the Master’s in Applied Positive Psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania now and am doing research in the Positive Psychology Center in Philadelphia as well. I’m very, very interested in the field and I’m wondering if you have any good ideas about relevant graduate programs in your region, area, country, where ever you live. 😉 Please let me know!! Thanks.

    Have a POSITIVELY great day! 🙂 HEHE

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